Fires take multiple shapes and can be assessed in several ways, such as the area destroyed, number of casualties, and more. 

They are typically tough to compare, especially those from various eras and isolated locations where technology and approaches vary significantly. Below you will come across a devastating list of the ten biggest forest fires in the world. 

1. Peshtigo Fire

PeriodOctober 8, 1871
LocationPeshtigo, Wisconsin, USA
CauseDrought
Fatalities1500

When Chicago was ambushed with intense wildfires, the winds took another toll on Wisconsin forests, keeping them ablaze for several days and destroying numerous nearby settlements. 

Peshtigo was reduced to debris in a matter of hours. Large flames erupted in many communities across Michigan, Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron.

Peshtigo, along with several other Midwestern communities, was prone to wildfire. Wood shavings blanketed the roadways leading in and out of town, and a vital overpass was constructed of timber. 

Almost every facility in the city was made of wood, providing ample fuel for ablaze.

2. Great Michigan Fire

PeriodOctober 8, 1871
LocationMichigan, USA
CauseDrought + Logging
Fatalities482

Sawmills had become a massive business in Michigan by the mid-1830s. These procedures left aside twigs, barks, and large amounts of useless timber, which served as ready-to-light dynamite. 

Thousands of small ground-clearing fires blew together to produce gigantic curtains of wildfires that destroyed territories in numerous states after a prolonged and warm spell in 1871.

According to another opinion, a meteorite may have dispersed blazing wreckage throughout the region from Lake Michigan to Alpena. 

After the devastating forest fire, not only was the soil left empty in various parts of Michigan, but countless structures were devastated, leaving no timber to reconstruct the city. Several households were displaced. 

The exact magnitude of damaged property, animal deaths, and habitat destruction has never been known, but it was one of the most challenging fires in American history.

3. Cloquet Fire

affected regions map - forest fires
A detailed map of affected regions by Cloquet fires| Map illustration by Walter I. Fisher
PeriodOctober 10, 1918 – October 12, 1918
LocationCarlton, Minnesota, USA
CauseDrought fueled by train flashes
Fatalities453

Particles from railways and arid circumstances combined to cause one of Minnesota’s worst wildfire catastrophes in 1918. 

Hundreds of people have been severely injured; many have been left destitute and abandoned. And the economic loss is expected to be in millions.

The blaze started at Sturgeon Lake and was labeled the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire due to the apparent extent of the destruction. 

In the dense forests, the area’s lumber sector used rudimentary chop practices, releasing dried leftovers that were excellent combustible matters for wildfires. 

They also had a habit of leaving debris on the train lines that brought hardwood from the sawmill.

Forest fires were almost unavoidable because train motors at the time frequently emitted jolts. The fire started on October 12 and swiftly expanded prevailing winds. 

Over 200 people were killed in the Moose Lake area when the blaze rapidly spread through the hamlet. The total loss was estimated at over $100 million.

4. Great Hinckley Fire

PeriodSeptember 1, 1894
LocationPine County, Minnesota, USA
CauseDrought + Logging
Fatalities418

A massive wildfire devoured and annihilated Hinckley and five other settlements, including Mission Creek, Sandstone, Miller, Partridge, and Pokegama, on September 1, 1894.

Lumber factories had grabbed the finest of the hardwood throughout the years. Hence, the earth was littered with branches and pieces from the trees downed by the loggers. 

With each passing season, the remains settled where they fell, becoming drier and drier. The 1894 summer was scorching warm and muggy. 

There had been minimal rain, and the circumstances were ideal for flames. Several small fires had already started by the embers from the trains running past, and logging factories had started fires to sweep the remains regularly. 

The fog made the air cloudy at all times. Countless households were divided by the fear generated by the large evacuation as thousands escaped the flames. 

It took several days of anxiety and waiting to find out if their family members were safe from harm. 

Those who lived in creeks and holes, potato fields, or through some other miracle were in terrible shape. 

The heated air had burned their lungs, their eyes had been swelled, sealed by smoke, and their limbs and ankles had been burnt and scarred.

5. Great Chicago Fire

Chicago fire - forest fires
Aerial view of Chicago fire 1871 destruction| Sketch from Chicago History museum
PeriodOctober 8, 1871 – October 10, 1871
LocationChicago, Illinois, America
CauseDrought
Fatalities290

The Great Chicago Fire, also known as the Chicago Fire of 1871, was ablaze that started on October 8, 1871, and lasted until early October 10, 1871, destroying a large portion of Chicago.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Chicago experienced exponential development. In 1850, the demographic was approximately 30,000, and a decade after, it had more than tripled.

Inexpensive accessibility to the city’s periphery stimulated middle-class decentralization, but lower-income areas near the downtown core were crammed with wooden buildings. 

The region had been barren and dry for months due to a lack of rainfall, and a big wildfire the night before had drained firefighters and destroyed gears. 

According to the stories, a cow stomped over a lantern in a barn and caused a wildfire. Although other hypotheses claim that humankind or even a comet was to blame for the disaster, the real accurate cause has not been identified to date.

6. Thumb Fire

Thumb fire - forest fires
Smoking forest after great Michigan thumb fire of 1881| Image from Thumbwind
PeriodAugust 31, 1881 – September 5, 1881
LocationMichigan, USA
CauseDrought + Logging
Fatalities282

The Thumb Fire, which raged from September 4 to September 6, 1881, claimed countless lives and torched nearly one million acres of forest lands. 

Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, and St. Clair counties were all devastated by the catastrophe. Additionally, it changed the Upper Thumb’s terrain irreversibly, and we may witness its impact at present.

The Military sent the troops to the environment to identify the accident and determine the cause. In September, it had been over 60 days since any significant rain had occurred. 

Almost all of the streams were lifeless. Several of the wells had run dry. The sun had baked the wetlands to solid concrete, and it had been hotter than it had been in decades. The meadows and woodland foliage had turned to kindle for the fire.

The temperature had reached an extraordinary depth, baking and cracking the ground. Spot fires that erupted over time drew low humidity air from outside rather than humid air above the lakes. 

Fragments and shards transported by the wind ignited the further blaze. The severity of the wildfires was exacerbated by large brush heaps created by logging operations.

7. Indonesian Forest Fires

PeriodMay 1997 – March 1998
LocationBorneo & Sumatra, Indonesia
CauseDrought + Deforestation
Fatalities240

Bushfires in Indonesia and the ensuing smoke dominated front-page international headlines as the smog stretched as wide as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Australia. 

Hundreds of square miles of rainforests, farms, protected forests, and marshland were torched in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, Bali, Lombok, and Sarawak, Malaysia, followed by the Southeast Asian “tiger” economy collapse.

Sulfides, nitrous oxides, and embers emitted by combustion mixed with pollutants and city emissions created a stifling smog that reached nearly unreleased levels of air pollution.

The Air Pollution Index surpassed the API of 800. More than 200,000 residents were admitted to hospitals with heart and respiratory problems, acute nosebleeds, and eye pain. 

Furthermore, wildfire implied the long-term health hazards on the over 70 million people in six nations afflicted by the haze.

8. Black Dragon Fire

PeriodMay 6, 1987 – June 2, 1987
LocationHeilongjiang, China & Amur Oblast, Russia
CauseDrought + Deforestation (disputed)
Fatalities191

The Black Dragon wildfire consumed 18 million acres of pure coniferous rainforest, which is ten times the size of the Yellowstone National Park blaze. 

It devastated valuable timber fields as large as the size of Scotland and scorched an area as big as New England. China had never witnessed a catastrophe like this in its 300-year history.

On the Russian side, an estimated 15 million acres were destroyed. As for the Chinese part, three million people were killed. 

The Russians chose to “let it burn,” while the Chinese battled wildfire with two armies of regular soldiers and thousands of forest personnel.

The blaze started in the Da Hinggan Forests, a pine forest in China’s Greater Khingan Range. 

In 1987, the territory bordering the Amur River in the area was exceptionally hot and drought-stricken, resulting in an oversupply of withered flora. These were excellent elements for a big firestorm to erupt.

The fundamental moral of the wildfire is that humanity cannot overrule natural forces as large as fires.

9. Black Saturday Bushfires

PeriodFebruary 7, 2009 – March 14, 2009
LocationVictoria, Australia
CauseHeatwave + Faulty power line
Fatalities173

In the year 2009, 400 forest fires erupted in the Australian state of Victoria. While the precise quantity of territory destroyed by the flames is unknown, it is estimated that the landmass charred was more than 4,500 square kilometers. 

The fire also claimed the lives of 173 individuals and damaged 2,029 structures. The expense of recuperation exceeded a billion dollars. 

The Black Saturday Bushfires are widely regarded as Australia’s worst natural catastrophe. All through February, Black Saturday bushfires raced throughout Victoria, Australia.

Most of the blazes were caused by vandalism, electricity line collapses, and natural phenomena like thunderstorms. Wildfires were finally confined and controlled on March 14.

10. Attica Wildfires

Attica wildfires - biggest forest fires
Efforts to slow down Attica Region wildfire| Photo by Economic times
PeriodJuly 23, 2018 – July 26, 2018
LocationAttica Region, Greece
CauseHeatwave + Negligent arson
Fatalities102

A raging fire in the Attica region reduced thousands of hectares to rubble. Firefighters were seen attempting to evacuate residences while people battled to retrieve their belongings.

Approximately 700 people were safely evacuated, mainly from the seashore communities north of Rafina, particularly Kokkino Limanaki and Mati. 

Firefighters discovered 26 bodies stuck meters from the sea, clutching one another as they perished. 

Numerous people were pulled from coastlines and the ocean by sailboats while collecting bodies from the sea.

Firefighters rescued an entire summer camp with 620 youngsters in a nighttime expedition. 

Countless domestic and wild animals were injured and killed indiscriminately. 

After the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires, the Attica wildfires became the planet’s second-deadliest wildfire incident.

To Wrap Up

Humanity has tested nature plenty of times, whether due to curiosity or sheer foolishness. 

As the saying goes, as we sow, shall we reap; if we continue to test the limits of mother nature and prioritize ignorance, such devastating catastrophe will continue to retaliate with human lives. 

A forest fire can occur in any region as droughts have dried out many green areas due to climate alteration. It is always good to be prepared for such an unfortunate event. Here is the list of 10 must need kits during the forest fire.

(Last Updated on February 4, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Shradha Bhatta holds a Bachelors’s Degree in Social Work along with a Post-graduate degree in Project Management from Georgian College in Canada. Shradha enjoys writing on a variety of topics and takes pleasure in discovering new ideas. She likes traveling and spending time with nature. She is a very people-person who loves talking about climate change and alerting people to go green!